Pakistan simmers with protests against Sharifs’ poll bar (Lead)

February 26th, 2009 - 11:13 pm ICT by IANS  

Nawaz SharifIslamabad, Feb 26 (IANS) Former Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif Thursday vowed to take his fight against a Supreme Court decision barring him and his brother from contesting elections to the people, as President Asif Ali Zardari attempted to distance himself from the verdict, which has triggered violent protests in the country.

The protests against the apex court ruling continued for the second day Thursday with thousands of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) activists taking to streets, damaging government and private property. One PML-N activist was killed in the protests in the adjacent garrison city of Rawalpindi.

Speaking at a rally for the first time after his disqualification, Sharif, a two time prime minister, vowed he would not accept the judgement and would fight against it with mass support.

Exhorting the people to protest, Sharif told the rally in Sheikhupura, a town close to Lahore: “Pakistan is heading towards disaster unless you take steps to save it.”

“Do you have 15-20 days to save Pakistan? I am not asking for a lot, just two weeks of your time and cooperation. Do you have two weeks to save Pakistan? We will save Pakistan together, if you cooperate with me,” he maintained.

PML-N activists fought pitched battles with riot police in different parts of the country, while most businesses, including those in the capital, remained closed.

Television footage showed protesters pelting stones, breaking barriers, burning official vehicles and damaging property.

In Lahore, legislators, barred from entering the assembly premises, met on the steps outside the building. Later, they were joined by other PML-N activists.

In Rawalpindi, protesters burnt tyres and blocked roads. Schools, colleges, shops and business centres remained closed.

There were protests in Islamabad. College students blocked the main entry into the capital early in the morning.

The police used teargas and batons against supporters of Pakistan’s biggest opposition party. Several party activists were also arrested.

Pakistan Rangers and additional police forces were deployed in different parts of Punjab, which is at the centre of the protests.

The decision by Pakistan’s apex court came days ahead of a crucial “long march” by lawyers and opposition groups seeking restoration of former chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and the other Supreme Court and high court judges then president Pervez Musharraf had sacked after declaring an emergency in November 2007.

The Supreme Court Wednesday upheld last year’s Lahore High Court verdict that disqualified Nawaz Sharif because of his conviction in a case concerning his attempts to block the landing here of a plane carrying Musharraf, who was then the army chief. Musharraf subsequently overthrew Sharif in a bloodless coup in October 1999.

Sharif’s younger brother Shahbaz Sharif was disqualified on grounds of tax evasion and bank loan default. The decision led to the collapse of his Punjab provincial government.

The electoral disqualification of the Sharif brothers has widened the simmering rift between President Zardari and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani.

Gilani, reacting to the situation in the aftermath of the verdict, said: “The court decision has hurt my government’s efforts for a national reconciliation.”

On his part, Zardari said he had nothing to do with the Supreme Court verdict, and all action taken subsequently, including the dismissal of PML-N government in Punjab and imposition of governor rule there, were within the constitution.

Zardari met his political ally and leader of a religious conglomerate Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman.

Like many other allies of the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), Rehman had Wednesday expressed reservations on the court decision.

Zardari is reported to have said there was no political instability in Pakistan and things would settle down soon.

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